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Protestors march through the streets of Kitimat, B.C., on June 24, 2012, in a rally against the Northern Gateway pipeline project.Robin Rowland/The Canadian Press

Once a little-known factor in plans to carry oil to Canada's West Coast, expansion of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline now faces a level of public opposition almost as high as Enbridge Inc.'s controversial Northern Gateway project.

A new poll finds that 60.3 per cent of British Columbians surveyed are against Gateway, while 49.9 per cent oppose the twinning of the Trans Mountain system, a half-century-old pipe that already carries substantial volumes of Alberta oil to Burnaby, B.C.

Those surveyed were asked to name which issue they saw as most important in B.C. and, unprompted, pipelines got the second-highest number of votes – behind the economy but above health care, the environment, unemployment and education.

The poll was commissioned by the Living Oceans Society, an environmental group that has sought to keep oil tankers off the B.C. coast. Nonetheless it provides an insight into the deepening public opposition facing the oil patch as it seeks to access new, and lucrative, Pacific markets for its product.

The opposition to Trans Mountain is especially striking, since Kinder Morgan is seeking to expand an existing pipeline and terminal used to load oil tankers. In other words, oil already moves to the B.C. Lower Mainland through Trans Mountain in substantial volumes. The Enbridge project, on the other hand, promises to bring oil to the northern B.C. coast where oil movements today are very limited.

Kinder Morgan also has yet to formally apply for the Trans Mountain expansion, and won't even publish a map of its proposed route until late next year, when it makes that application. Enbridge is already in the midst of a prolonged and hotly-debated federal review that has brought forth thousands of public comments.

Yet a telephone survey of those along the Kinder Morgan route – the survey also included Vancouver, which lies beyond the pipeline but next to waters where tankers would sail – found substantial opposition to the expansion project.

"Those that think Kinder Morgan is a much different animal, in terms of the average person, than Enbridge are mistaken," said Bob Penner, CEO of Stratcom, the left-leaning communication strategy and polling firm that conducted the survey. "People are seeing them both very similarly. They're not buying the positive arguments for them and they're not buying that there's a big difference between Kinder Morgan and Enbridge."

The poll of those along the route tapped 768 people. A separate online poll of British Columbians obtained 1,012 responses. While Stratcom said it sought to present neutral questions, both polls employed questionable language in some instances, by suggesting Trans Mountain transports only bitumen, or heavy oil sands crude, rather than the broader variety of oil and refined products that the pipe actually carries.

The B.C.-wide poll found support for both projects at low levels, with 19.9 per cent of people behind Gateway, and 21.9 per cent behind Kinder Morgan. In both cases, the number of British Columbians that have maintained an open mind is low: 15.6 per cent declared themselves neutral on Trans Mountain, and 10.2 per cent neither supported nor opposed Gateway.

The low levels of support come as Trans Mountain mounts an increasingly widespread campaign to win public favour. The company now has a half-dozen people on its community engagement team, some strategically hired from communities along the pipeline route.

In October, it will launch a series of public information sessions along the pipeline route, and is also developing an online platform where "there will be forums and discussions and opportunities to provide feedback to our website," said Lizette Parsons Bell, the expansion project's lead for stakeholder engagement and communications.

"We hope and trust that British Columbians, and all Canadians, will take the time to learn the facts about the project in order to make an informed opinion and engage us with a real dialogue based on facts," she said.

However, she declined comment on whether the company would be willing to amend its route – a route it has resisted making public – based on public input, saying such questions would need to be posed to the expansion project's manager. The precise route of a pipeline is often amongst the most contentious elements its proponent faces.

Resistance to the expansion is not uniform. There is greater support than opposition amongst those who vote Liberal and Conservative – although Mr. Penner points out that with a quarter of Conservatives opposed, it's enough to put in jeopardy some Conservative seats in the province. Among those who supported the expansion, its benefits to the economy ranked as the top reason; other factors included its contribution to jobs and the fact a pipeline already exists along that route.

Still, a demand from Premier Christy Clark that B.C. take a greater share of revenue from pipelines like revenue appears to be doing little. Of those polled, 29.7 per cent said more money from Gateway would make them more likely to support the project, while 25.2 per cent say they would grow less likely to support it.

"With these polls as a whole, it's clear that for every single party, [pipelines] are a political vulnerability," said Tzeporah Berman, one of B.C.'s best-known environmentalists, who now consults for numerous organizations.

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